XRIJF Day 2 – Makoto Ozone and Tommy Smith
I knew of Makoto Ozone before this show because I had played him on Jazz 90.1 before. When I first played him, I was going through our library alphabetically to get some new ideas, and the last names starting with “O” are few. I picked an album, played a track, and I’ve been intrigued ever since. I love his work on the album “Oscar, With Love,” a CD which has a large group of jazz’s finest pianists play on Oscar Robertson’s piano, and I loved his selection. Naturally, I wanted to see him perform live.
Though, like most people I’m sure, seeing the names “Makoto Ozone” and “Tommy Smith” paired together piqued my interest. A Japanese man who only admitted to “discovering” classical music at 43 in the midst of one semester at Eastman, and an Scotsman on the sax seemed like an odd couple. Like the Democrat and Chronicle’s Jeff Spevak, I didn’t quite know how to feel going in, with a couple introductory thoughts scribbled on my notepad about how the concert would go. I didn’t think I’d be blown away, but that’s what happened.
The acoustics of Kilbourn are wonderful for the listener, and these musicians did the hall, and us, a service by playing without amplification; though you wouldn’t know it by listening to Tommy Smith play. Smith is a demon in the form of a man on the sax, projecting a truly massive sound on the tenor, complete with low register that he can manipulate to be full and brash, up to high screaming notes with both a delicate touch and the attitude of a screaming blues singer. He impressed further by mastering slides and scoops on his instrument, bending the line between notes. All while still sounding smart and crafted.
Ozone however, applied his own genius with a lighter touch. Yes he played loud and soft, but his mixing of styles, from blues to rag to bebop to swing beneath Smith’s playing and in his own soloing with superb, complete with clean and smooth transitions between kinds of articulation. Pointillistic pops quickly came after smoothly pressed notes, the latter of which sounded like a stage curtain opening. What struck me was Ozone’s ability to not play at the exact right moment, creating space that was both tense and moved forward. It immediately had me writing “COUNT BASIE” in the margins.
The juxtaposition between Smith’s “in-your-face-but-not-quite-rude” style and Ozone’s taste and was palpable and the two communicated so well. John Nugent, who introduced the show and recounted a tale of golfing with Smith, called them “leading lights of jazz,” and it was hard to disagree.
Playing through a few standards, like “Sophisticated Lady,” and original compositions, the cooking “El Niño” and the Romantic/ Impressionist-influenced ballad “XYST” by Smith and the not-so-obvious blue piece “Popcorn Explosion” by Ozone, the two were incredibly at ease. Ozone in a untucked dark blue silk shirt and Smith in a hanging short-sleeve button-up, the two truly looked, and played, like brothers on the stage.
Each piece was filled to the brim with interplay, contrapuntal lines, call and response. Verbally and musically, the two joked, pushed each other, and got in each other’s lines and ideas. They were fun, witty, relaxed, and kind. Between songs, they occasionally talked, and were effusive in praise with one another. Ozone remarked that he had just learned one of Smith’s tunes that day, Smith and Ozone got a laugh when Smith couldn’t understand Ozone saying “recognizable.” There was also that moment when Smith was in the ozone-layer-high range, and Ozone shouted “Higher!” and Smith stepped up and stood on top of the stool.
I could go for a long time about the genius that they exhibited so casually yet progressively, and how they deftly switched and developed ideas through single-line melody, harmony, and articulation during the main melody and their solos, but I think that sentence will suffice. Instead, I want to focus on a moment.
I’m sure you’ve seen Tweets and articles about it. It was truly a XRIJF moment. In the middle of the ballad “Exist,” Ozone finished his solo, and Smith was getting up. Instead of facing stage right toward Ozone, he faces in the inside of the piano, navigates his tenor into the open space between the lid and the strings, and blows. With his monstrous yet sweet sound, Smith crafted colorful harmonies that resonated throughout hall, and resonated the strings. Ozone simply held down the keys, and the strings, unhampered by the hammer, resounded to the “Sound of Smith.” An angelic, ghostly, ethereal voice came singing out of the piano, a sustained chord produced from those unfettered strings. It was breathtaking, as the audience looked on in awe, bewilderment, and tension that erupted into massive applause, and eventually a standing ovation, mid-set.
Think about this. Where else would this happen? Two stars of the jazz world, cutting loose, relaxed in a pristine hall, but intimate enough to share the moment with audience. Smith and Ozone took a chance, and make it work without exchanging a word. I know I will be telling everyone I can about this, and I trust all of the audience will as well. This is what the Xerox Rochester International Festival is about.